There have been a lot of movies over the years with waitresses as leading characters, including a quartet of Oscar-winning performances: Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore in 1974, Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets in 1997, and Halle Berry in Monsters Ball in 2001. And the quintessential film noir waitress of all time: Kansas City's own Joan Crawford as long-suffering Mildred Pierce in 1945.
A new five-part adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, Mildred Pierce, begins airing on HBO this Sunday night.
Unlike the 1945 Warner Bros. film, which tidily ended Mildred's sad -- and untidy -- saga with a murder that isn't in the Cain novel, the HBO miniseries, written and directed by Todd Haynes, hews closer to the darker, more sordid original novel. The book follows the rise and fall of a Depression-era housewife, played by Kate Winslet, who becomes a waitress and pie baker after her divorce. She parlays these talents into opening a restaurant and, later, a series of restaurants named after herself. The featured dishes? Fried chicken and waffles. And pies, of course.
One of the reasons that the 1940s Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz, has become a cult film favorite -- more than 60 years after its release -- is that it has uncanny references to Joan Crawford's real life. She had been a waitress at Stephens College before she fled to Hollywood in the 1920s. She used her sexual attractiveness to further her career. She had a stormy relationship with her eldest daughter. And she liked to cook.
The HBO series features Rachel Evan Wood as Mildred's scheming, amoral daughter, Veda. One of the highlights of the 1945 film is when Ann Blyth's Veda calls out her mother for being in the restaurant business: "You smell of chicken ... and grease."
That's not such a bad thing anymore. Just ask one of the waitresses at Stroud's: chicken and grease = good tips.